ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Greatness. It's a term that's easily understood but difficult to quantify in athletics. Is it measured by championships? Personal accolades? Individual statistics? Or is it something with broader context, like being able to improve the performance of those around you?
In the case of Raiders defensive tackle Richard Seymour, the answer is "all of the above." He won three Super Bowls in four appearances during his eight seasons with the Patriots; was voted to five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams during that time; and recorded 39 sacks with the team, tying for sixth most in franchise history by a defensive linemen.
Still, his greatest achievement may be the impact he has had on teammates since joining the Raiders before the start of the 2009 season.
"I can speak personally about it," says Pro Bowler Nnamdi Asomugha, one of the game's top shutdown cornerbacks. "Once he came in I felt like I had to step my game up. Before, it was like -- you never get complacent, you never get content -- but you get, I don't know, kind of comfortable when you're 'the guy' year after year after year.
"But when someone else comes in that's the guy, that has won championships, you're like, 'OK, I've got to step my game up even more.' It wasn't a thing of competition. It was: I have to do better than I was doing for him to trust me and respect me. I have to do more because of whom I'm surrounded by, a guy who is studying, a guy who really wants to be the best. Richard did that for me and didn't even know he was doing it. Anytime you're around greatness, you just want to be greater."
There are similar tales from the Raiders locker room, where Seymour, 31, has come to be viewed as a mentor, friend and standard-setter. During fellow defensive tackle Tommy Kelly's first six seasons, he was known as a player with great potential but limited discipline. For every sack or quarterback pressure, there were two offsides or a mental lapse.
Yet Kelly has been a consistent force this season. In Sunday's 23-20 overtime win over the Chiefs, he had three tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble. The week before against the Seahawks, he had three tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry. Slowly, he is shedding the underachiever label that has dogged him for much of his career.
"Big Rich brings the example," says Kelly. "He don't talk it; the résumé talks it. You already know what he means because of the Super Bowls and Pro Bowls. He commands respects, and he gives you respect. So it's easy to follow the example of somebody like that."
For the first time since 2002, the Raiders are playoff relevant in November in part because their effort and work habits are starting to match their talent level. At 5-4 they are above .500 this late in a season for the first time since going to the Super Bowl eight years ago, and many of the players point to the 6-foot-6, 310-pound man with the slow words and Southern drawl as a big reason.
During Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 27, Seymour and Asomugha sat behind the Rangers dugout and spoke about nothing but football for almost 30 minutes. Even when third base Juan Uribe launched a fifth-inning three-run homer to push the Giants' lead to 8-2, setting off fog horns, water cannons and mass delirium in AT&T Park, the two never flinched. Their conversation was too deep and meaningful.
"Everyone is standing up going crazy, and we're just sitting there talking Raiders football," says Asomugha. "We're talking about our futures, our careers, where we've come from in the league, and how we've met on this middle ground. We're talking about him not having five, six, seven years left and wanting to get back to the Super Bowl before he retires, and me wanting to win now, me needing to win now, after some of the most difficult years of my career."
The conversation seemed unthinkable at the start of last season. After being traded to the Raiders on the Sunday before the season opener, he failed to immediately report. There was speculation that he wanted no part of the losing and dysfunction that had taken place in Oakland the previous six years, during which the organization employed five head coaches, signed free agents to megadeals only to cut them after one season -- or sometimes, in the case of cornerback DeAngelo Hall, after only eight games.
After a few days the Raiders sent a letter to Seymour threatening to place on a reserve list that would prohibit him from playing at all in 2009 if he did not report within five days. The truth, says Seymour, was that he was caught off guard by the deal and needed time to prepare his family for the change. Some of his kids had just started a new school and decisions had to be made about whether he and wife Tanya would uproot the family for what might be one year in Oakland, where Seymour would be in the final year of his contract.
"There was never a point that I wasn't going to play football," Seymour says. "But there was a lot going on. My family comes first. I may be a football player, but that does not define me. Once I got to Oakland, I saw that the Lord was really leading me out here for a reason. He was taking me out of one place and putting me in another where I could really have an impact on a lot of young guys. That's something that I've always wanted to do my whole career, what I believe my calling was. I feel like I'm at a place where I was designed to be, so this is fulfilling. I feel like I'm at that place right where I need to be.
"From the outside, people can look at it and say he's going from a team that's won the most games this decade to one of the teams that has lost the most. But I think it takes a special person that can move from that environment and still have a positive effect on others without being discouraged himself. Now I'm not saying they've all been great days. We've had our share of road bumps and issues throughout the way, but that's a part of growing.I'm a firm believer that people can say things to you or do things to you and think that they're putting you in a position to fail, but at the end of the day that situation can be a blessing. And this has been that for me."
It's also been a Godsend for coach Tom Cable, who has a respected, proven winner to carry his message into the locker room. It's interesting now to hear Oakland defenders not only talk about the importance of the little things -- like practicing with tempo, being in the right gaps, playing with effort on every snap -- but actually do those things.
When the Raiders trailed the AFC West-leading Chiefs 10-0 late in the second quarter and appeared to be on the verge of surrendering a back-breaking touchdown just before the half, Seymour gathered the players and told them they would be defined by the moment. In the past it was just the type of situation where the Raiders might have buckled. After all, losing has a way of becoming habitual when it's all you've known during your time in the league. But Seymour looked guys in the eyes and told them that if he were a general manager, this was the type of situation that would tell him about players. Would they fight when times were hard, or would they quit.
The Raiders forced an interception.
"He always says to just make sure you're always playing hard, no matter what the situation is," says rookie defensive end Lamarr Houston. "Don't ever get comfortable or complacent."
"From the first time he got here, he brought an air of, I've been through a lot of battles and I know how to prepare and I know what it takes to be successful," says Cable. "His role is constantly teaching in that locker room what it takes to be successful -- not cutting corners, staying through the course. It's a lot of hard work; there are a lot of setbacks that you go through. But you keep plugging until you get it right. I think he's brought that mentality that you just go to work."
In the offseason, the Raiders tried and failed to sign Seymour to a three-year extension. When they could not agree on the numbers, the South Carolina native signed a one-year deal for $12.4 million as an exclusive rights franchise player.
Some outsiders speculated that Seymour was hedging his bets, that he isn't totally committed to the Silver and Black. Again, they are wrong.
"We weren't able to come to terms in the offseason, but I'm optimistic things will shake out," he says. "I see myself retiring a Raider. I don't see myself leaving. I'm comfortable with it, I've got peace with it. Hopefully the powers that be feel the same way."